Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.

As Pleased As Punch!

The morning of our Farm Open House found the children and I scurrying about preparing for visitors. Janet had gotten called in to work on short notice and my well-planned preparations took a tailspin as I found myself shorthanded. After a brief panic, I made a list, marshaled the children together and passed out tasks to be done.

The day was bright and relatively warm. That realization came as a relief because our little house would likely be swamped if a large crowd appeared and needed refuge from the cold. I made another round to check how the children were getting along with their tasks. Freya tidied the interior while Sean organized the construction materials from the never ending coop project into neat piles. To Aidan fell the unenviable task of checking the yard for any messes left behind by the dogs.

After a quick change of clothes, I fired up the tractor and drove it to the little rise overlooking the entrance to our driveway. A few days before, I had purchased a big "Welcome" flag which I now fastened so it would hang from the bucket of the front-end loader. I raised the bucket as high as it would go while the boys gave me approving thumbs-up signs from the driveway.

Our property is not well marked. OK, it really isn't marked at all! We had made a little poster board sign and were nailing it to a pole when the first car slowed and turned into our driveway. By the time I had completed the task and had walked back to the house, three more cars appeared and made their way to parking spots. The children and I strolled out to welcome our guests as yet more cars arrived.

It was an exciting time. Some of the people who emerged were old friends of ours while others were completely new. We hugged some, shook hands with many, made introductions again and again while trying hard to remember every one's names. Eventually Janet arrived and the rounds of hugs and greetings began again as we put out snacks and got everyone seated in the living room.

I had been preparing a little slide show and talking points for the past couple of weeks. Showing my stripes as a nerdy engineer-historian-activist-farmer, I launched into my talk that covered the history of agriculture from before World War II, through the Green Revolution, the founding of the CSA movement and an overview of Organic Farming practices. Finally I got around to our little farm and our plans for the CSA.

Everything seemed to be going very well. People made lots of comments and asked questions to elicit more details about us and our intentions. When things finally wound down, we moved everyone outside for a tour of the farm. Once we were outside, I was amazed at the number of people who were present. Many had not come inside at all because the house had been too full and were patiently waiting for a second round of the presentation.

I led everyone around as best I could and showed them the features of our little farm and where we planned to do various things. They lined up along the fencing to the chicken enclosure as I gave a little talk about our chickens, answered questions about the coop and held a hen out for them to pet. We toured the edge of the field that had been plowed for spring planting, showed them our beehive and the bonfire circle where we plan to hold parties.

I invited those who had not heard the talk to join me in the house as the rest of our guests made their way back to their cars. We had planned for the Open House to end at 4, but I found myself still answering questions to a fairly large crowd as the clock edged toward 6pm. Once the last of them had departed, we were tired but elated at how well the day had gone.

The real surprise came when we checked the sign-up sheets that were on the dining room table. Nearly everyone who had come signed up on the spot. Two families had even paid their memberships two months early! With few exceptions, the remaining people had left saying that they just needed to talk it over with their families and would call us back. That is exactly what they did. Before three more days had passed, we had sold all twenty shares that we planned to offer for 2010.

The group of people that have joined are amazing and I couldn't be happier. They come from many walks of life and bring a wide range of strengths and levels of experience to the effort. They have already begun to pull together behind the idea of forming a community around this farming adventure. More than half have signed up to be more actively involved in planning and working together with us on the farm. All of that involvement from such a great group of reliable friends and impressive new ones, has given us the confidence to increase the number of shares that we will plant for this first year. As of today we still have a couple of openings left.

I am excited and not at all intimidated by the year ahead of us. It feels very much like a group effort and everyone is charged up to build something great together. That enthusiasm fuels my drive to do my very best. It may sound corny, but it makes me feel like my life has taken an important turn for the better.

The Magic Crock

I've never been a picky eater....except for blue cheese....and organ meats....and black licorice...and just about anything from the ocean. OK, so maybe I'm a bit of a picky eater! In any case, I have never been a fan of sauerkraut.

As a kid I would turn my nose up at the stuff and always minimized my consumption of it to the smallest "no thank you" portion that I could get away with. Even though I tend to be someone who enjoys traditions, I never wanted any part of the whole eating sauerkraut on New Years' Day thing.

When Janet recently announced that she was going to make sauerkraut from the last of our cabbage, I did my best to conceal my lack of enthusiasm for the idea. I even spent an afternoon attempting to make a wooden lid for the crock that would fit inside on top of the cabbage. That didn't work out so well because of the conical shape of the interior made it a poor fit.

I watched as Janet rinsed, chopped, salted and placed the leaves into the five gallon crock. When she was done I said, "That's it? Just leaves and a little salt?" She assured me that nothing else was required. I didn't question her authority on the matter further because she was raised by her German immigrant mother who certainly knows all about sauerkraut.

The success of the pickling process depends on the exclusion of oxygen. After my failed attempt with the wooden stopper I tried a second idea that I saw in a book somewhere. I placed a large plastic bag in the crock on top of the cabbage and filled it with water. This idea seemed to work very well, it sealed very tightly to the sidewalls of the crock and provided weight to press the cabbage down.

The flaw in the idea wasn't apparent until a few days later when I checked the bag and found that all of the water was gone! My choice of bags wasn't the best and it ended up developing a leak and flooding the cabbage. With considerable effort, I lifted the full crock to the sink and drained the water back out again.

Janet wisely took the whole effort over from me then. She placed two dinner plates into a plastic bag and pressed them down on top of the cabbage. We moved the crock to a quiet corner and let it alone for about six weeks.

When the day came to open the crock and try the sauerkraut, I was dubious to say the least. I was expecting to find a moldy disgusting mess under those plates. When she lifted them out and we peered inside, I was amazed to see that the cabbage had been magically transformed into pale pickled strands that looked for all the world just like sauerkraut!

Janet rinsed some of the the sauerkraut and placed it in a pan. She warmed it up a bit and added a little red wine vinegar and a touch of sugar to taste. The children and I sat at the table wrinkling our noses as it was served out but became instant believers the moment we tasted it. To my surprise, it was delicious and we all asked for extra helpings!

I guess I have to admit that her skill in the kitchen has decreased my picky eating habit by one more item. We canned what we didn't eat right away and it is now now resting in the basement larder for whenever the mood strikes us. Despite my misgivings, I now find myself looking forward for the first time to resurrecting that New Year's Day tradition in our household. I know already what one of my resolutions will be.....to plant more cabbage!


Three Strikes

It started badly and went downhill from there.

Strike one... I turned into the driveway and began picking my way among the potholes. It was exactly one year ago on a sunny day in early November. We had just closed the deal to purchase this small farm and I could barely contain my excitement.

As the farmhouse came into view, I saw a black pickup parked in front and my reverie was suddenly interrupted by a wave of anxiety. The land purchase that was a high point of my life also marked the low point for the previous owner. Having fallen on rough times, the farm was now being surrendered to the bank and in turn to me. I hadn't anticipated running into him as he removed the last of his belongings and I worried that the encounter might be unpleasant.

I parked the car and walked toward the house all the while rehearsing a pleasant greeting in my head. As I walked, my peripheral vision caught movement from an unexpected direction and I turned my head to see a man racing toward me on a four-wheeler. He roared up the rise and parked the vehicle directly in my path.

The man was clearly upset and I was pretty unnerved myself. After several minutes of heated and confused conversation, I managed to figure out that this was not the previous owner but instead was the next door neighbor. He was upset because rumors had been running rampant about the new owners of this farm. He had been led to believe that it had been sold to a hunt club that was going to let the house fall into ruin and fill his weekends with the constant sound of gunfire.

I did my best to assure him that the rumors were as far from truth as could be. I told him that we were an ordinary family with young children who hoped to turn the property back into a working farm. My explanations seemed to be slaking his intensity at least a little when the previous owner finally approached us from the house. With a curt goodbye, the neighbor fired up his vehicle and retreated back toward his own house.

I recovered from the confusion of the past few minutes and managed to deliver my rehearsed salutation. The previous owner turned out to be very friendly and actually grateful that we had come along to purchase the property when we did. His changing fortunes had gotten him into a bind with the bank that was only remedied when they managed to locate a buyer.

Strike two... It was a beautiful afternoon only a few days after our first unfortunate encounter. The entire family had come with me to begin working on our new property and everyone was assigned a task. The children had begged to be able to bring our young Labrador retriever along and seeing no harm in it, Janet and I agreed. Having nothing else to do with him, we tied him to one of the benches at the bonfire circle and I began mowing the overgrown yard nearby. We were all so excited to dig into our new project that we barely noticed that Finnegan was barking for attention the entire afternoon.

As the afternoon wore into evening, I continued the massive project of mowing the very large lawn. At one point our daughter Freya approached to inform me that the neighbor was back and had asked to speak to me. I found him standing near the property line and walked up to see what was on his mind.

He was again quite agitated. He informed me that he had spent a very frustrating afternoon attempting to deer hunt in the woods next to his house. He had sat there in his tree stand listening to the incessant barking of our dog and he was convinced that the noise had spooked all of the deer from the area. I apologized for our lack of consideration and he replied with a statement that I should be careful or somebody might just shoot that dog of ours.

Strike three... A few days after the dog incident, I noticed that the same neighbor had placed "No Trespassing" signs on a series and trees and poles between our two houses. The problem was that the signs appeared to me to be quite far on my side of the line as if he believed that a section of our property belonged to him. I brought it to his attention and he told me that the previous owners of both properties had indicated that the property line ran where he had posted the signs.

Now to be fair, he had actually placed those signs prior to our first meeting when he feared that the farm was being turned into a hunt club. I decided that the best way to settle it was to hire a survey crew to mark exactly where the dividing line ran. A few weeks later the survey crew confirmed my assertion and my neighbor reluctantly adjusted to the idea that a couple of his acres were actually mine.

The last thing that I wanted was neighbor trouble. We were so excited about our new home and had looked forward to building good relationships with our neighbors. Unfortunately at each turn it seemed that we were just getting further into trouble.

Read the next post below "Gift Exchange" for the rest of the story...

Gift Exchange

(continued from "Three Strikes" above)

Through November and December of last year my family hauled load after load of our belongings to our new farm. It was with great relief that we finally completed the task and could retreat from the cold to spend our time cleaning and painting the interior. On the brief occasions that we did happen to be outdoors at the same time, my neighbor and I mostly ignored each other. Time passed and the cold wind blew.

Our brief hibernation ended as the children and I emerged in late January to begin tapping the maples and boiling the sap down into syrup. I spent most of February and March carrying sap from the woods and sitting out behind the house tending the evaporator fire late into the night. I can't recall who it was that broke the ice first, but soon my neighbor was taking a minor interest in our sugaring activities.

One evening in late February my cell phone rang as I was sitting by the fire. My neighbor was calling to make an offer to give me a large pile of firewood that he had accumulated and couldn't use. Before long he had loaded up the trailer of his four wheeler began delivering load after load to our back yard.

This generous and friendly gesture changed everything! Before long, I was knocking on his door to deliver a bottle of our syrup and the reciprocal gift exchange continues to this day. I delivered a tin of cookies, he has returned the tin with strawberries inside. We have given him watermelon and green beans. He has brought us cucumbers and zucchini.
As the summer months have faded into fall our once tense coexistence has steadily grown into a friendship. We regularly loan each other tools and equipment. He has joined in my coop construction effort when heavy lifting was required. He has offered helpful advice and I have done my best to design the coop to reduce the crowing noise in the early morning hours.

It is now common for us to call each other when something interesting happens. In the early spring we called him to come see the snapping turtles that were crawling from our pond to lay eggs in the garden. In late summer he invited Aidan and I to join him in the woods where he showed us salamander eggs that he had found beneath a log.

I can't tell you what a relief it is that this has sorted itself out for the better. He and I are now looking forward to our joint adventure coming up this early spring when we plan to expand our maple operation to include his woods as well as mine. I am amazed at how far a little habitual generosity can go to overcome even the worst relations and build the foundation of a lasting friendship. I heartily recommend that everyone get in the habit of bundling up a little something, taking the kids and delivering it with a smile to your neighbors!

Big Help From An Old Friend

It has been a busy week preparing for the upcoming CSA meeting and an overabundance of assignments at work. The pile of tasks before me seem to grow faster than I can complete them and the days are falling off of the calendar like so many leaves in the wind. On Thursday afternoon I was racing with the clock to complete yet another assignment for my boss when an unexpected email found its way to my desktop.

The email was from Scott, a friend from my home town. He had just begun a stretch of days off and decided that it was high time that he paid us a visit. I hadn't seen him in at least six years so I checked with Janet and then replied that he would be very welcome. I took Friday off and he drove up from Ohio that morning.

Scott and I go way back, in fact all of the way to our first meeting in preschool daycare. Much to the delight of my children, he can still tell stories from my past such as how I caused a whole tray of chicken noodle soup to be spilled on the carpet at Mrs. Cooper's daycare. We have been friends through thick and thin although we have often been out of contact for years at a time.

Scott has a way of showing up when I'm in the middle of some big project and lending me a massive hand. We worked on each other's Eagle Scout projects, he helped me build a wood strip canoe, he has helped me out of jams and provided much needed muscle again and again. This visit was to be no exception as we stood in the yard catching up and looking over my never-ending chicken coop project.

I had bought siding for the coop months ago. Unfortunately that purchase proved to be premature as I had so many additional items to complete before I could finally begin hanging the sheet metal. In the meantime, the siding has sat in the grass getting rain soaked and always worrying me that it would rust before I ever had a chance to use it.

Friday and Saturday we applied ourselves to the task like men possessed. We visited and laughed as we worked and told stories of all of the things we had been doing in the past few years. It was wonderful to have the help and his company and we accomplished so much more than I had hoped.

On Saturday evening, the sun was sinking low in the sky as we hung the final sheet. We were exhausted and had been pushing ourselves for the past few hours even though either one of us would have happily given up if it had not been for the other saying "we're so close to being done, let's try to get another one hung up". The worst part of the job had been the meticulous cutting and fitting of each sheet around all of those doors and windows.

Just as we were finishing up the children relayed the message that dinner was on the table. Freya had harvested Brussels sprouts from the garden and Janet had made a delicious chicken pot pie. We sat around the dinner table telling stories and jokes and I noticed how easily my children enjoyed interacting with my old friend. We polished off the meal with homemade canned apple cake with ice cream and some of Janet's elderberry sauce.

It was a wonderful and helpful visit from a dear friend just when I needed the boost. Given the size of some of the tasks we have in front of us in the next few years I think we're going to have to encourage him to visit a little more often!

First Rooster "Processed"

This past Saturday morning I was pleasantly surprised to have our daughter, Freya, come up to me and suggested that this weekend would be a good time to butcher the roosters and that she would like to help. I had decided a while ago that I would like to try my hand at processing our own birds. At first this notion was greeted with a low-grade horror and disbelief from members of the family. It's quite one thing to raise the birds and have them hauled off to a slaughterhouse only to return as neatly packaged chickens as if from the grocery store. It is quite another to have it done right here at home with no opportunity for us to deceive ourselves that the bird on the plate wasn't actually one of those that we had been feeding and petting out in the coop.

Having had a while for the concept to sink in, the family eventually got used to the idea that I wanted to slaughter them myself. The common phrase became, "Just don't do it while I'm around!" For these reasons it was surprising to me when our daughter decided that she wanted to participate directly. We had a busy day ahead of us so we decided to undertake the task on Sunday.

After lunch on Sunday we started gathering the supplies that we would need. I reviewed some chicken butchering instructions on the web and we set up a table out back with everything we would need. I constructed a "killing cone" out of sheet metal and attached it to a stake that I placed in a discrete location among our pine trees out of sight of both our house and our neighbor's. We put some water on the stove to be used for scalding and I headed out to select a rooster.

Our surplus roosters have been making a real nuisance of themselves for a while. Of course they are only doing what comes naturally, but their behavior has made it increasingly clear that we needed to cull the flock down to the proper male to female ratio. Our breed of chickens is normally happy with a proportion of 1 rooster for every 8 hens. Since our current population is 7 roosters for 13 hens this has led to lots of fighting, chasing and commotion as the roosters have competed for too few females.

The biggest problem of late has been the fact that the roosters are harassing the hens mercilessly. The roosters tend to hang around the exit of the hen house squabbling amongst themselves and waiting for a female to come along. Whenever a hen emerges from the building she is immediately pursued by all of the roosters and very roughly bred by most of them until she can escape back to the relative safety of the coop. Not having any hands, the roosters tend to grasp the feathers of the hen's head in their beaks to keep her still during the procedure. This generally results in feathers being yanked out and all of our hens are partially bald from the excessive and unwanted advances of so many males. During my daily visits to the coop, the sight of the long-suffering little hens reminds me that I need to do something to give them some relief.

I retrieved a rooster and we found that I had to make some adjustments to the killing cone due to the large size of the birds. When it was finally ready, I tried to persuade Freya that she probably shouldn't watch the actual killing. I had never done this before and was worried that it would be excessively unpleasant and upsetting, especially due to my inexperience. She insisted on watching and told me that I shouldn't "sell her short" by assuming that she couldn't handle it.

I went ahead with the deed and it went surprisingly smoothly and with very little distress for the bird or us. The killing cone did its job by holding the rooster securely and preventing any of the legendary commotion of "a chicken with it's head chopped off". The method that I used was to simply place the rooster upside-down in the cone with it's neck sticking out of the bottom. After one quick cut it was all over quickly.

We carried the bird back to the processing table and checked the temperature of the scalding bath. Aidan arrived at that point and seemed to handle the sight of the dead rooster more with curiosity than anything else. I noted to myself that all of this was much easier to handle emotionally as soon as the rooster was dead. I put Aidan to work by having him watch the timer for me as I scalded the bird to loosen the feathers for plucking. After that was completed, we immersed it in ice water to quickly cool it back down again.

I was concerned about how difficult the plucking would be having heard a number of people indicate that it was laborious. Freya and I sat down at the table and began plucking only to find that it was quite easy to do. It was somehow amazing to see that the bird emerging from beneath the feathers already looked just like one from the grocery store. I had originally planned to make a homemade chicken plucking device to assist in the job, but for this first bird it just seemed quicker and easier to pluck it by hand. Most likely that little project will wait until some point in the future when I have more birds to handle.

By the time the rooster was completely plucked, I admit that I was getting a little tired of the task. The rest of the process of cleaning the bird and preparing it for the freezer proved to be pretty simple. In seemingly no time, the children and I were admiring the final result and Freya said that she couldn't wait to show Janet how well we did.

I did learn one lesson that is apparent from the picture. Due to my inexperience, I removed too much of the skin from the upper breast as I was removing the rooster's crop. It's a minor defect and one I'm not likely to repeat now that I know better. I felt proud of myself for figuring out how to do my own butchering and especially proud of Freya for being so strong and helpful in the face of an unpleasant task.

A day later I find myself reflecting on the contributions of the chickens much in the same way that I did when I carried the first egg away from the coop. I feel greatly impressed by the very significant contribution to our table and livelihood that these birds are able to make. It is humbling somehow to realize that eventually every one of those birds and potentially thousands of their progeny will meet the same fate as the first, but not without first providing us with many thousands of eggs along the way.

While their contributions are less than voluntary, I feel they are worthy of considerable respect just the same. Looking at it that way, all of the resources and effort we have expended to build them a comfortable and healthy place to live seem much less like folly and much more like something that they heartily deserve in return for all that they provide to us.


Getting The Word Out

We are very excited about starting our CSA farm this coming spring and are trying to get the word out to folks who might be interested in participating. We have decided to hold a Farm Open House and CSA Formation Meeting on Saturday, November 21st. You can read more of the details here. We want to hold the meeting now so I can figure out how many members to plan for and get a jump on preparing for ordering seeds and sowing seedlings in January.

We want to start small and grow slowly, but we also want to find enough people interested in joining us to make it economically worth the effort. I emailed the announcement to some of my coworkers who have purchased eggs and vegetables from us in the past and am now fretting over how to get enough people involved. Janet is also planning to distribute the information to her network of friends and I've got my fingers crossed that some of them will decide to come. I have heard back from one coworker who indicated strong interest which calmed my fears a little.

By scheduling an open house, I have now created a deadline for myself to get a bunch of things done around here! Most evenings this week have been spent at the sewing machine making a Halloween costume for our son Aidan. He headed off to school this morning in a flowing green wizard's robe and pointy hat. Now that it is done, I need to really focus in finishing up my projects and making things look presentable for our guests. It's going to be a busy weekend!


Front Door For The Coop

One focus for this past weekend was finishing up the exterior of the chicken coop in preparation for installation of the sheet metal siding. The last item to be completed was the installation of a front door. This door opens into the central utility room between the two coops.

Among the things that we brought with us from our old house when we moved onto the farm was our old front door. The reason we did such an odd thing is that the door is a solid oak raised-panel door that I made using my woodworking tools in our garage. After putting all of that work into it, I wasn't willing to part with it. It spent most of the last year leaning up against the living room wall waiting for me to find time to install it.

Having finally installed the oak door in its rightful place, the door that came on the farmhouse was now free to be recycled into the chicken coop project. Once I had it mounted, I decided that it needed an awning roof to protect it from the rain.

The biggest trouble now is the fact that the new door has confused a couple of the roosters. Although they have been going in and out of the new chicken door (in the photograph on the end of the building) for some reason they have decided that they would rather wait for somebody to come along and open the big fancy front door.

Last night I was surprised to find them out after dark sitting on the ground in front of the door. The coyotes have recently become extremely noisy during their nightly hunts in the woods to the south of our farm. Had they noticed those roosters, they certainly would have made an easy and tasty meal. Luckily their farmer (aka "chicken doorman") came along in time to let them in!


Taking The CSA Plunge!

I had thought that it would take a few more years before I would be ready to announce this, but we have decided to take the plunge and open our farm as a commercial operation beginning in January 2010. We had been discussing the idea of turning the farm into a "CSA" for some time now and I have done a fair amount of research. On a recent weekend retreat, a bunch of Janet's friends tipped the scales by saying that they were all willing to sign up as our first customers and things have been falling into place ever since.

"CSA" stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It is a relative newcomer on the American agriculture scene since being imported from Europe to two east coast farms in the mid-1980's. This system of operation involves a partnership between customers and farmers wherein the land's produce is sold in advance to CSA members or shareholders. In return for prepaying for their share at the beginning of the year, each customer is entitled to a weekly share of produce.

What I find particularly appealing about the CSA concept is the need to produce a wide variety of different foodstuffs. A typical operation will plant over 100 varieties of vegetables and fruit to ensure that each week's food share will contain at least 7 or 8 different items. It also requires careful planning to provide a steady stream of produce from early spring to late fall. This type of farming seems to me to be merely an expansion of what I have already done this year and is far more appealing to me than producing a single crop such as soybeans or feed corn.

When thinking of taking on this commitment in the past, I had been intimidated by the fear of a crop failure leaving me in a position of disappointing customers who have already pre-paid. After quite a bit of reading, I now understand that the risk of such problems isn't merely on the back of the farmer but is instead shared by the whole community. From the start everyone will be aware of the vagaries of extreme weather and crop losses and share in the risks and benefits together.

Another of the benefits to the customer of this approach is the sense of being more intimately involved in the production of their food. Philosophically, the farm becomes the community farm and they can be directly involved to the degree that they wish by participating in community decision-making and on-farm volunteer activities. As well, the CSA provides social events such as harvest celebrations and social gatherings to the benefit of farmer and consumer alike.

Janet and I are very excited about this idea and are looking forward to setting it all in motion. We are planning a farm open-house and organization meeting for the CSA sometime in the next month (contact us if you are interested in attending through
www.portageriverfarm.com). We hope to encourage many of our current customers and friends to come see the farm and learn about the CSA. Our intention is to start out small and build things up over time but the only way to get started is to roll up our sleeves, take our courage in both hands and...get started!





Farmhouse Cooking

One of the unexpected challenges of our new life on the farm has been the need to radically modify our cooking. Janet and I have always taken pride in the food we have provided for our family. We have always put an emphasis on things "prepared from scratch" and have accumulated a large cookbook of favorite recipes.

What I didn't realize ahead of time is that our family recipes were mostly based on the "from scratch" items coming from the supermarket. As the fresh produce piled up this summer, it quickly became apparent that we needed a whole new set of recipes! We are now in the process of starting all over again to find appealing ways to incorporate an abundance of fresh produce into our diets.

Along the same lines, I have also been struck by the sheer number of chicken recipes that we have used in the past that only utilized the breast meat. These recipes are either going to have to be modified or replaced with ways to use the whole bird. It took the experience of raising our own meat to make me realize how wasteful recipes that use only the choice portions of the animals can be.

Now that we have loaded up our pantry with hundreds of mason jars full of preserved food, we also have to find a way to use those. Prior to this, we simply picked recipes for the week and stopped by the store to pick up whatever we needed as if it were an infinite pantry. Although we will never completely eliminate our dependence on the grocery store, we look forward to relearning the skills of meal planning to gradually reduce it.

Black beans are another example. From the picture you can see the beautiful little harvest of black beans that we grew in our garden. We already had a favorite recipe for Mexican black bean soup in our cookbook, but it called for the use of canned beans from the store. As another step in our education, we had to learn to divide the weight of canned beans from the recipe by a factor of 2.5 in order to know how many of our home-grown dried beans to use.

As we sit down to enjoy our meals, we feel a sense of pride and satisfaction at the increasing frequency of ingredients that we have grown. I think it will be quite a while until we can resist pointing out those items to our children. They invariably pick up the conversation and start dreaming with us of the day when we can have meals entirely produced on our own land.


Trudging Onward

When faced with a task that I am dreading or one that has become tiresome, I use a couple of strategies to keep myself from giving up. One of them is to just keep trudging onward. I just put my head down, focus on the things directly in front of me and just keep moving one step at a time.

The chicken coop construction project has become one of those kind of tasks. It has certainly taken more time and effort than I imagined when I started. It is finally getting to the point that it is taking shape and it is easy to imagine how nice it will be when finished. I just wish it were done already!

The list of things that I have yet to do is long indeed. Instead of becoming overwhelmed, I'm just focusing in the next step and ignoring the rest. As such, I took a couple of days off this week and completed two small mouthfuls of the great big pie. The first was the construction of chicken doors for the birds to get in and out of the coop. I built one on each end.

I had originally planned on building eight doors, but my neighbor thankfully reminded me of the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid!) principle and I reduced the number to one per coop. The reason for the large number of doors in my first plan was because I intend to "pasture" the chickens by dividing their outdoor space into separate yards and controlling their access to give the ground time to recover. Now I am on to a simpler plan which will involve them exiting the coop into a "lane" similar to those used for cattle and I will set up a series of simple outdoor gates into the pastures. More on this later.

The second task that I completed was the closing and paneling of the soffits. It proved to be difficult because of the need to work over my head for much of the time. Now that it is finally done, the upper edge of the walls are now ready for installation of the metal siding. This will greatly cut down the cold air flow from outside and further reduce the noise of the roosters crowing in the early morning hours.

All of this struggle that I am going through to keep myself moving forward on the coop project reminds me of how I deal with the same problem when making a piece of complicated furniture (woodworking is another of my hobbies). It is very easy to give up on a project when faced with an intimidating task or just after I've discovered a mistake.

A philosophical approach that has really become key to allow me to keep moving forward is to adopt the attitude that making a table, or building a coop is a "past time" rather than a "task" to be completed. By focusing on the activity as something to enjoy rather than only looking at the final goal of the finished product, I find that I am much less likely to lose spirit and give up.

So now it's time to step away from the computer and go back to my coop building "hobby" and try to enjoy the next activity for today...the installation of the front door.

Autumn Splendor

The beauty of Fall time is far too fleeting. For the past few weeks, the leaves have put on an increasingly dazzling display as each species took its turn to flare up in brilliant hues before fading and falling in favor of the next. The winds and rainy days that follow are now making quick work of hurrying the leaves on their plummeting journey leaving only black and grey skeletons warning of the bitter season just ahead.

The sights and smells of the season bring an odd mix of nostalgia, euphoria and melancholy. The passage of time is never more acutely felt than when the scents of decaying leaves and ripe hickory nuts drift past on the cool afternoon breeze. My memory stirs to recall misty scenes of Autumns past, of phases of my life now over, of people long gone.

There is something so distinct about the light of a sunny Fall afternoon. The color of a clear blue sky, the golds and reds of the leaves, the faded greens and yellows of a field of goldenrod. In particular I am always pleased by the multicolored display of the maple trees still green at the core, with bright yellow leaves crowned with crimson at the very top. Those bright trees always bring the voice of my grandmother back to me as she would exclaim, "My! Those leaves look good enough to eat!"

Whether working outdoors, driving to work or merely passing a window, I always try to pause to take in the sight of the leaves. I find myself wishing that it would slow down and linger a while instead of being over so soon. As I near our farm on the way home from my workday, I alter my usual course to drive slowly up Toma road. I periodically stop to snap pictures or stand at the bridge across Portage River to admire the view.

I suppose it is the season's ephemeral nature that most inspires my admiration. As I pick up my pace to complete belated summer chores, my mind savors these last pleasant days. It feels that the best that this life has to offer can be but briefly held in breezy, fragrant Autumn.

Eerie Light Show

Friday evening was the Fall Festival at Aidan's new school. He and I had a nice time playing games, eating donuts, listening to a local Celtic band made up of kids, taking a hayride, touring a local fire truck and police car. He was especially pleased with the cupcakes that he won in the cake walk and couldn't wait to get home to sample them. Janet and the other children were away for the weekend so we drove home to a dark and empty house.

Our farm is located far from any large residential areas and can be very dark at night, so dark that the University of Michigan has an observatory on a hill just southeast of us. On clear evenings the stars come out by the billions. Before sending everyone off to bed, we often gather the whole family on the deck to lie back in the chairs to marvel at the beauty hanging above. We always remark on the massive Milky Way, the big and little dippers, the Pole Star. We have watched meteor showers and wondered at the strangeness of satellites drifting silently past.

We pulled up our bumpy driveway and came to a stop in front of the house. I exited the car and started walking toward the front door. Aidan hurried to catch up with me to calm his uneasiness about the darkness around us. As I reached out to place a reassuring hand on his shoulder I glanced upward to take advantage of this brief opportunity to see the night sky.

Immediately my eyes were drawn to something unusual to the northwest. I stopped walking and involuntarily said, "what is that?" Aidan gripped a hand-full of my jacket and followed my gaze upward and repeated my question with an edge of alarm in his voice. A massive vertical column of white light shone down from the sky. It looked a bit like a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds or perhaps as if someone were shining a huge spotlight straight up into the night, except that the sides of the column were perfectly parallel rather than spreading as light tends to do.

A quick scan of the rest of the sky told me the identity of the mysterious apparition and I quickly reassured Aidan that we were looking at the Northern Lights. The column turned out to be one of many that dotted the night sky above us. Most were on the horizon where they joined to form vertical curtains of ghostly white light. His apprehension immediately turned to wonder and we walked around the house exclaiming how beautiful they were and wishing that the rest of the family were there to share it with us.

I had only seen the Northern Lights once before. We used to own a sail boat and spent our summers exploring the Great Lakes. One night in late fall found me out in the middle of Lake Huron as I sailed south to move the boat to its winter berth. The lake is so massive that it takes more than a day to cross and is far too deep for anchoring, leaving little choice but to sail on through the night. I remember observing a pale curtain of greenish light that spanned the northern horizon and seemed to follow me for nearly the entire night. Since it was my first time observing them, it took me a number of hours of staring at them before my mind finally sorted out what I was seeing.

Aidan and I finally tore ourselves away from the display and we went inside to resume our nightly bedtime routine. After putting him to bed, I returned again and again to check on the lights. The show lasted for about four more hours until the sky finally cleared of all but stars around 2AM. I made many attempts to figure out how to capture the lights on my digital camera with very limited success. Hopefully you will be able to make out the faint vertical smudges of light above the trees that do little justice to the silent beauty of this eerie phenomena.

Humbled By Bees

By the weather forecast, Saturday afternoon looked as if it would be the last relatively warm and clear day for some time to come. The state of the beehive had been nagging on my mind for a while so I decided to get right to the task of harvesting the honey and reconfiguring the hive for winter. As soon as Sean heard of my plans, he asked if he could help me. I was very welcoming of his participation because he has always been a bit squeamish around the hive and I felt it was a good opportunity for him to increase his confidence.

We have had a good historic partnership with the bees. They have been very docile and industrious and we have mostly left them to their business. We have never had an issue with anyone getting stung and I have never had the slightest fear of working around the hive. I regularly demonstrate their non-aggressive nature to visitors to our farm by passing my hands through the little cloud they form in front of the hive as they hurry back and forth to the nearby fields of flowers. I also will open the hive now and again to peek inside without any protective equipment at all.

Back at the house, Sean and I suited up in our make-shift bee-suits and headed out to the hive. I cracked it open and began to break it into sections to assess the health of the bees and to see how much honey they had accumulated. From what I could see they looked strong and heathly. Sean assisted by handing me tools and by manning the smoker which is used to keep the bees calm during our invasion. Aidan also stopped by to observe the proceedings from a short distance away.

It didn't take long for us to notice that the bees were being unusually aggressive. As I worked further into the hive the air around us filled with more and more angry bees attempting to defend their home. Before long Sean became unnerved by the number of bees that were swarming around his head. I assured him that they would not hurt him in the bee suit and gently chastised him that he needed to stay calm and not overreact to the threat.

Despite my reassurances and my efforts to calm the bees, their furious defense continued unabated. Sean and Aidan decided that it was too much and headed back to the house as I did my best to finish up the task. Poking around in the beehive is normally a pleasant and interesting experience but the rising aggression of the bees soon had me looking forward to finishing my work, closing the hive back up and getting away from it.

As I began the process of stacking the hive back up I was suddenly surprised to feel something brush against my cheek. My middle-aged eyes are losing the ability to focus on things at close range but I was convinced that a bee had penetrated my suit. It was flying around inside my veil and preparing to sting me in the face! It was at this point that all of my years of beekeeping experience and my oh-so-grownup self control abandoned me utterly.

I admit it. I panicked! I can't imagine what I was thinking. I just went into autopilot. As if out of reflex, my gloved hands came up and pulled the veil off of my head to shake the bee out without a single thought to the cloud of angry bees that orbited me just outside the protective suit!

As if with one mind, the angry bees recognized the unexpected opportunity to wreak their revenge. Dozens of them dove at my unprotected head in search of the perfect spot to sting. By then I had recovered my faculties but there was little I could do but flee. I quickly walked away from the hive and made my way across the hayfield while I attempted to keep the vengeful mob at bay by waving my hands around my face.

Despite my efforts to get away from them, they continued attacking my head even after I had traveled more than 80 yards! In my attempts to defend myself I had dropped my glasses somewhere in the field. I was also leaving a trail of clothes and equipment behind as I shed layer after layer to rid myself of the bees that had become trapped inside with me.

The worst of the experience came from the fact that I have very long hair. It was tied back as always but in running my hands over my head, I was entangling more and more bees in the strands. By the time I had finally moved far enough away that the defenders had retreated, I had at least a half-dozen bees entangled and buzzing furiously just behind my ears! I kept trying to smash them with my fingers but the buzzing continued until I finally made my way into the house and picked them out one by one while standing beneath the hot shower.

I referred to the suits that we wear as "make-shift" because only the head-gear and gloves are made for this purpose. The suits themselves are actually painter's overalls made from thin plastic from the hardware store. The fatal flaw in this instance is that there are gaps in the defenses that can be exploited by the bees if they crawl down under the collar of the suit and then up under the headgear. That being said, I have used this arrangement and even less for years without encountering any issues.

As for why the bees were so aggressive, I can't say for sure. The best time to work in beehives is during warm clear days when most of the bees are out foraging. For that reason the cool weather may have been a factor. It may also be that these particular bees that I had purchased from Georgia during last spring are simply more aggressive than I am used to.

Once I had rid my hair of the last bee, I suited back up to complete the task at hand. I closed the hive up and collected two full supers of honeycomb loaded to the brim with fresh honey. The bees eventually calmed down and returned to their docile ways.

I counted my stings and was surprised to have only received three. Of course, had I remained calm, I would have kept that number to one at the most. In the end I am left with a renewed sense of respect for our tiny winged livestock and a clear sense that I need to upgrade our equipment before the time comes to begin working the hive again next spring.

Suddenly... Sales!

This has been an investment year for us on the farm. We have sunk considerable funds into the purchasing of the tractor and the building of the coop. Lesser amounts of money have gone to restock the apiary, purchase seeds and sprinklers for the garden, buy chicken feed and maple sugaring equipment. Even in this lean year we have taken these expenses in stride and considered them as necessary investments for the future.

The original vision of remaking our lives on this beautiful little farm was centered around the idea of a self-sustaining lifestyle. We dreamed of doing for ourselves as much as possible, raising our own food and eventually providing our own power as well. Over the past half year, that vision has been augmented as we have begun to realize that there is also the potential to share the products of our labors with others around us and potentially supplement our income and offset some of the costs in the process.

During the summer months, as the ripe vegetables piled up around us, we tried with little success to find people interested in buying or at least taking some of our excess. The very idea of being able to sell what we were growing seemed remote. Of course, we hadn't found the time to try the farmer's market and that would have likely helped. Instead we ate what we could, canned even more, stuffed our freezers full, chopped some up to feed to the chickens and left the rest to rot into compost.

Quite unexpectedly in the past two weeks the whole situation changed. A few of my coworkers began to express interest in our produce and I managed to sell several grocery sacks full of a selection of the few things we had left. It felt wonderful to have people taking home our vegetables to feed their families, especially when they subsequently told us how much they enjoyed them. I received a number of glowing reports about how much better things had tasted fresh from the farm when compared to the grocery store.

The hens have really been ramping up their production of eggs to at least eight per day and full cartons began to stack up in the refrigerator. We gave a few away to family and friends but soon it was clear that we were either going to have to find some customers to buy them or simply begin throwing them out.

I made up a little flier at work to post on the bulletin boards and within 24 hours enough calls had come in to alleviate any further fears that we would have to let them go to waste. Instead, I am now happily delivering eggs to grateful customers each day that we have a full dozen and at least the next week's production has already been sold!

In addition to lifting my feelings about our prospects considerably, the popularity of the eggs has created an opportunity for me to build a base of customers to offer our fresh produce to as soon as it is ready to harvest next spring. While I have my doubts that we will ever make enough from these sales to recoup our investments in our little farm, the ability to provide something that our friends value and enjoy is a wonderful validation of all of the hard work that has been going into this little hobby of ours.

Thinking About Root Cellars

If necessity is the mother of invention, then not planning ahead is the mother of necessity. About a week ago we had a very hard frost that killed just about everything in the garden. What remains are the cold weather crops, the winter squash, and the root vegetables. As the nights have become progressively cooler it has begun to worry me that I have no good way to store our winter vegetables!

Most root vegetables need temperatures in the range of 32-40 degrees F. Our home has an unheated garage that could be used for storage, but it is far too cold in our Michigan winters that routinely reach 10 degrees below zero. We also have a basement but it is far too warm. With an eye to the ever cooler weather forecast, I have been casting around trying to figure out what to do before everything freezes and is wasted.

In my long-range plan for the farm, I had been assuming we would dig a proper root cellar outside the back door. This is obviously too much of a task for me to begin now if I am to have any hope of completing it in time. Given how miserable the winters can get here, I also have my doubts how much we would actually venture out there and shovel the several feet of snow away from the door to retrieve something. It seems more likely that we would eagerly stock it full in the fall and then mostly waste everything inside due to lack of use.

That has led me to begin thinking about building a root cellar inside our unfinished basement and cooling it with air from outside during the winter. We have been planning to make a project of finishing the basement over the next few years and even have drawn up plans. In those plans there is a 7'x12' storage room that seem perfectly suited to the job.

I searched the Internet and came across a great article from the December 2004 Mother Earth News by Steve Maxwell that seems to be exactly what I had in mind. As you can see from the illustration, it involves building a little room in a corner of the basement, insulating it from the warmth of the house and using an exterior window as a source of cool air.

After seeing this, I am on the verge of launching into yet another project. Nevermind the fact that I have so many others half-finished! Unless Janet grabs me tonight and shakes some sense into me, I think I'm going to pull together a materials shopping list and set off on yet another ambitious project that must be completed before the snow flies. You can either wish me good luck or wish me more common sense, that choice is up to you.

Big News On The Maple Front!

As the days have begun to cool, my mind has turned toward the upcoming sugaring season with increasing regularly. Of primary concern is the fact of I have not had time to cut any firewood for use in boiling down the sap when it starts to flow in late January. We still have a nice pile of wood from that kindly given to us last spring by our neighbor, Tim, but it is a far cry from the amount that will be needed.

Toward the end of last year's run, Tim had spoken to us of his interest in offering the use of maple trees on his land. I enthusiastically agreed and said we could work out some kind of a deal to compensate him. We resolved to take some time this summer to scout his property for trees. Many months have passed since that conversation and we have both been too busy to get around to the task. As the leaves on our maples have begun to turn and fall to the ground I had begun to worry that we wouldn't get it done before the trees were bare and much more difficult to identify.

Yesterday morning as Sean and I were installing coop windows, my cell phone jumped to life in my pocket. It turned out to be Tim calling to suggest that it would be a good day to scout those woods for maples and I heartily agreed. We set a time to begin in the afternoon.

Having been distracted from our coop construction work by the thought of maple sugaring, Sean and I decided that we should spend the early afternoon surveying our own property. We wanted to check the growth of each of the trees that we tapped last year, just in case any had grown big enough to accept an additional tap. The guidelines for the number of taps per tree has limits based on the size of each tree to protect its health. We also wanted to check the rest of our woods to see if we could find any other trees that we had missed in our late-fall survey last year.

We had a great time walking around in the woods and checking the trees. Before long we had located quite a few trees including a couple of very large ones that we had never noticed before. We excitedly measured each one, marked them with survey tape and calculated the additional taps we would be able to bring into production. All told, we were able to find seven new trees and we will be able to grow our operation from last year's 15 taps to a total of 28.

We neared the edge of where the property line divides the woods just as Tim joined us in the search. We spent a couple of hours crossing back and forth together through his beautiful parcel, peering into the foliage, measuring and marking trunks and chatting as we went. By the end we were exhausted and amazed at the sheer number of maples we had found.

The final count of our combined sugarbush is enough trees to support a whopping 72 taps! That is such a huge increase over the 15 taps that worked me to death last winter and they are spread over a much wider area. We were very happy with the results and the agreement that we worked out to form a sort of partnership in the venture. I am especially happy because my firewood woes were solved at the same time because his portion of the bargain is to provide all of the firewood that I need to process the sap from both properties!

Now I am going to have to start thinking about some technology improvements to make this large of an enterprise manageable. Tim made the suggestion that I should invest in an ATV for hauling the sap back to the boiler each day and I'm inclined to agree. I suppose a horse would be more traditional but would probably add more complication and cost than I am ready for.

I also need to think seriously about our equipment and facilities for evaporating, filtering and bottling the syrup. Given the expense and the time involved, I'm sure the scaling up of this operation will need to take place in steps over the next few years. Just the same, it's very exciting to think of the potential that we have at hand. Stay tuned to see how it goes!


These pictures are actually from a month ago during the height of our cucumber harvest. I had forgotten to post about the all-important pickle making that we do each year. We are big fans of pickles and eat large quantities of them every year. Our larder is now loaded up with dill and sweet pickles, as well as homemade sweet pickle relish!


Coop Windows

There is little doubt that Fall is in the air. October came in wet, windy and cold. We are feeling the pressure to get the outdoor projects finished up before our time runs out and we are driven inside for the winter.

Sean and I decided to devote this weekend to getting as far as we could on the coop building project. I know I have been blogging about the construction of this "chicken palace" for many months, but it honestly has been a massive project. If we had been able to work on it continuously, it would have been finished long ago. Unfortunately it always has to be balanced with so many other priorities.

Saturday morning found me dreading the day because the forecast had said "cold and rainy" and it appeared to be turning out that way. Sean and I headed out and were surprised to find the day pleasant for working, even with the occasional sprinkles.

We mounted window sills and frames that I had made last week in the openings. Then we unpacked and installed the windows that I had purchased from a reuse center. By the end of the day we had them half installed and the chickens were greeted by the sunrise for the first time this morning.


Hide And Seek

In the past week or so I noticed an odd trend in our egg production. I had been anticipating a gradual increase in volume but instead we started seeing a decrease. I had seen some evidence of a couple of new hens beginning to lay but now it seemed that they were producing less and less. At first, I thought this could be due to the increasingly cold weather and the shortening days but the literature claims that our Orpington's should actually continue laying right through the winter.

When I saw that yesterday's haul was only two eggs I decided to poke around a little bit. It didn't take me long to figure out what was going on. In the unfinished southern half of the chicken coop I have a number of doors and windows leaning up against the wall awaiting their day to finally get installed. I poked my head behind one of the doors to find a handsome clutch of eleven eggs as shown in the picture.

I'm not sure why a number of the hens have decided to lay here instead of the nice nest boxes that I built. My guess is that it has something to do with the improved privacy that this quiet corner provides. In any case, until we finish up this second half of the coop we will just have to add this location to our daily round of hide and seek to find the eggs.

Since we didn't know how long these eggs have been sitting there, I concluded that we couldn't keep them. Early this morning Freya and I let the birds out just before departing to drive to her school and me to work. We enjoyed a brief game of spotlight egg fast pitch as we took turns shining the flashlight at a tree out in the woods while the other attempted to smack the spot with the eggs. She won the contest handily with a slightly low but direct hit on the tree. Hopefully we won't have to waste any more eggs in that way but it was kind of fun just the same!
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